How to Write A Song
Here's a new article that's part of my Health, Lifestyle & Culture series.
There are so many things in the world that can inspire us to want to write a song. The changing of the seasons, the beauty of nature, longing and frustration, anger, love. Once you have found your inspiration, you can then work on your idea. And an idea is more than the abstract feeling of being inspired, an idea is a plan. A song must after all be viewed as something concrete, like an essay, with defined parameters such as length, lyrics, chords etc... The feelings it summons up in the listener may still be as ethereal as the inspirational feeling originally experienced by the composer, but the song itself must have structure. Let's look at how to turn inspiration into a song.
Finding the right vibe
Odds are if you are trying to write a song, you already have some kind of musical background. Deciding what you want the song to sound like is often a good place to start. Think about how you can achieve the rhythms and melodies that best conjure up the feelings that inspire you. For example, if you play guitar, decide whether the song requires fast picking, mellow strumming, feedback etc... Deciding this now helps the rest of the process along, as you can start to hear the music in your head. Now that the project is starting to take shape, let's get something down on paper.
A first round of brainstorming for lyrics is an indispensable part of the creative process. At some point a song needs language to define its intentions. Words usually conjure up the images in the listener's mind much more precisely than the music. Don't worry about structure at first, just write whatever you feel and pluck out the lines that seem to get the point across. Ultimately, you want to choose your lyrics very carefully as they are the backbone of the song and the thing that really helps the listener relate to your feelings.
Structuring the song
Personally, I like to create something I call a song sheet at this stage of the creative process. Write down the lyrics in a logical sequence and contemplate how the music will change expressions. By this point, you should have a few separate chunks of lyrics, each of which you intend on pairing with a unique musical aspect. These will form the traditional parts of your song, like the verse, chorus and bridge. There is no need to stick rigidly to any pattern when composing original work, but it helps to clearly analyze what patterns you're creating. If your song looks like it might end up with a unique structure, you should be able to clearly understand what that pattern is in order to eventually perform and produce your work.
Setting things to music
Now that the bare bones of the song sheet are completed, including lyrics and some musical ideas, it's time to create some original music. Most musicians enter the songwriting process with a few riffs in their minds. These snippets should help to get the ball rolling, no matter how minuscule they are. If you play guitar or piano, chords can be a good starting point. Jot down a few sequences of chords that seem to flow with the concept, and as you play them over and over again decide on the timing of each sequence. Working out the time signatures in an organic feel-based way should keep you closer to your original creative intention. Often the real feelings in the music can get lost in translation when too much emphasis is placed on the exactitude of musical notation. Stock in the go-with-the-flow approach to songwriting is at its highest value at this stage of the creative process.
Sing it loud
As you play the music, sing the lyrics, it's as simple as that. Even though you don't know the melody yet, and you've never sang these particular words before, it's time to release all of that pent up anticipation and let the chips fall where they may. Often this is where a song may get scrapped, but it's also where you may discover that you've written one of your best songs. Work though each section of the song sheet adding whatever new lyrics seem to fit the structure of the tune. With the successful completion of this stage of the process, you should have the foundation of a solid song clearly represented on the second draft of your song sheet. This should include lyrics, chords and/or other music notation.
Fixing the bugs
Gradually, as you play the song over and over, try to refine the performance and pinpoint what works and what doesn't. If you have a makeshift home studio (or even just an old fashion tape recorder), recording demos and listening to them over and over is often just as helpful as playing the song live. Remember, no song will be flawless right out of the gate.
Finally, you should be seeing the whole project come together. You can now start to think about things like production methods, drums & percussion, backing vocals and other instrumentation. For the most part the songwriting is now behind you.